By John Erath
While the news that the United States plans to help Australia build and operate nuclear submarines has recently made headlines, the real story may be the one remaining below the (metaphorical) surface.
The obvious aspect to note of the September 15 announcement is that it provides another signal that the Biden administration is committed to working with allies and places high importance on cooperative security. The primary advantage to nuclear submarines is their longer range and capacity to remain at sea for longer periods than diesel-electric boats. In practical terms, this signifies that Australia would be able to support partners in the western Pacific at any time and for any amount of time, a welcome alternative to reliance on the U.S. Navy and the possibility that disputes with China could lead to great power confrontation. Good news, then?
Perhaps not. There are huge barriers to building and operating nuclear-powered submarines. Of these, the most significant is the cost. Not only does construction of a nuclear-powered vessel require billions, but such submarines cannot operate without a maintenance and support system that boosts the price further. A single modern attack submarine could run $4 billion or more (in U.S. dollars), not including the necessary supporting infrastructure — amounting to at least 10% of Australia’s annual defense budget. Brazil has been working on a nuclear submarine for more than a decade, with cost estimates topping $7 billion, and no end in sight.
The costs alone may be such that an Australian nuclear-powered submarine will never put to sea. It is therefore important to look at why a government in Canberra, answerable to its taxpaying voters would be considering taking on a vast financial commitment, especially at a time when governments are struggling to deal with the costs of a global pandemic.
There are also the proliferation concerns. Not from operating a vessel with a nuclear power plant — the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty contains a specific exception for naval propulsion. Australia is a non-nuclear weapons state with an Additional Protocol in effect and a strong non-proliferation record. The main issue is that Canberra’s decision could highlight the naval propulsion loophole and lead potential proliferators to begin enrichment of nuclear materials — the key bottleneck in weapons development — under guise of their being needed for a theoretical submarine program following the Australian example. If Australia follows the U.S.-UK example and uses highly enriched uranium (HEU) for its submarines, it would set another bad example as HEU could potentially be used for weapons. It would also likely be prohibited by the bilateral nuclear cooperation (123) agreement between the countries.
With all these reasons arguing against Australia developing nuclear powered submarines, there must be a strong motivation for even considering such a step. Australians are rational actors and are making reasonable provisions for their own security based on their own threat perceptions. Put simply, if Australia is considering taking on the extreme expense and technical difficulty of developing a nuclear submarine capability, there must be a compelling reason to do so. Much of the reason, of course, has to do with China. As China continues to assert itself in the western Pacific, particularly through pushing territorial and maritime claims, other countries in the region are increasingly nervous. Critics will point out that Canberra could be accelerating an arms race, but given the degree of China’s regional military dominance, Australians may not agree.
The issue, then, is not what, if anything, to do about Australia’s plans to deploy nuclear submarines. It is how to address the conditions under which the government Down Under feels it must take such a step. Although building a network of allies and partners with the military capability to resist possible aggression could play a role in a China management strategy, it should not be the only course of action, or even the main one. There is no substitute for a real dialogue on security issues. Conflict, particularly involving nuclear-armed states, is in no one’s interest, and although deterrence through advanced armaments can have a place in a conflict avoidance strategy, it should not be the strategy. Such a strategy would involve all aspects of the situation, not just the military and would be built on dialogue and confidence building to decrease not only the likelihood of conflict but the perceived need for the weapons to wage one.